The Jungle Book | Study Guide

Rudyard Kipling

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The Jungle Book | Chapter 11 : Toomai of the Elephants | Summary

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Summary

Little Toomai is a fearless boy whose father—and grandfather before him—is an elephant driver for the government. Little Toomai knows Kala Nag, his father's old elephant, fears him and will always follow his orders. Big Toomai wants Little Toomai to grow up and be an elephant driver, too, because it is less dangerous and the government supplies a pension. However, Little Toomai loves the jungle and excitement of capturing wild elephants.

During a hunt Little Toomai slips down to the ground between two big elephants and ropes a wild elephant. Kala Nag lifts him up by the trunk, only to have Little Toomai get a talking-to from his father. His father doesn't want Petersen Sahib, the white man who runs the elephant-catching drives, to make Little Toomai become an elephant catcher. Petersen Sahib is impressed with his ability to rope an elephant but knows it's too dangerous for a little boy. Petersen Sahib tells Little Toomai he can go into the Keddahs, the elephant roundups, when he sees "the elephants dance," which means never, because no man has ever seen this ritual.

The same night elephant-hunting season ends, Kala Nag escapes, taking Little Toomai with him. Across elephant camps near and far, other elephants break their chains and pull up the posts they are tied to, and they all head for a secret spot in the jungle. Little Toomai, lying flat on Kala Nag's back, witnesses the secret elephant dance, as all of the elephants, wild and tame, gather together to circle around and stomp in unison.

The next morning Little Toomai and Kala Nag follow Pudmini, Petersen Sahib's elephant, to his camp. Little Toomai is so tired he slips off Kala Nag in front of Petersen Sahib and collapses, but not before he tells him he has seen the elephant dance. Machua Appa, the head tracker, and Petersen Sahib follow the elephants' footprints into the jungle, so they know Little Toomai has told the truth. They honor him by renaming him Toomai of the Elephants and allowing him to join the hunters. Although Big Toomai is horrified his son escaped in the night to follow the elephants, he has no choice but to accept the great honor bestowed upon Little Toomai.

Analysis

This chapter reflects on interactions between animals and human beings, an ongoing theme in The Jungle Book. Human beings in many of the stories don't understand animals and how they live their lives, just as many of the human beings in this chapter don't understand the elephants. Little Toomai is one exception to this rule, and Machua Appa spots this difference right away at the beginning of the chapter. Big Toomai thinks Little Toomai's efforts to rope a wild elephant are not only not helpful, but that they will condemn Little Toomai to a life of danger and an early death. But Big Toomai doesn't appear to really understand elephants, despite the fact that elephant riding is his family's trade.

The relationships among the elephants in this chapter also suggests a tension within the colonized peoples: those who collaborate in the colonization and exploitation of their own people, and those who are colonized through the efforts of their own countrymen. The elephant Kala Nag is respected by the British first for his work in their military, and later for his service in capturing wild elephants to be broken into service. Kipling characterizes this exploitation benignly, saying that "Elephants are very strictly preserved by the Indian Government," yet he describes not preservation in the sense of conservation, but conscription into service.

Big Toomai would like to make life easier on himself by taking the elephants away from their natural habitat and working with them on civilization's terms, on flat roads. Little Toomai, however, is in love with the hills and the excitement of being around the wild elephants. This willingness to, at times, live life on the elephant's terms allows him entry into a secret ritual no other human has seen—the elephant dance. Little Toomai prides himself on being able to get Kala Nag to do what he wants, but in this situation, he is just along for the ride. Kala Nag is in control, and Little Toomai is the beneficiary of a very special experience.

The end of the story is a reversal in that Little Toomai's first interaction with the wild elephants gets him into trouble. He gets a bit of money for candy from Petersen Sahib, which feels like a reward, but he also gets a promise that, essentially, he will never be able to be in the elephant stockade. Little Toomai's experience with the elephant dance completely reverses Petersen Sahib's thinking about him, though. The entire camp hails Little Toomai as "Toomai of the Elephants," almost royalty in these circles. That one event is the hinge on which the story turns, and bravery, as in the other stories, is rewarded.

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